Who Obstructs Global Action On Climate Change? More Companies Than You Think, According To A New Analysis

September 16, 2015
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

UPDATE (Sep. 16, 4:05 p.m.): InsideClimate News reported this morning new evidence showing that ExxonMobil knew about the harms of global warming way back in 1977—several years before the 1981 ExxonMobil internal documents that UCS shared a few weeks ago. In fact, Exxon didn’t just know about the reality of global warming then, they were conducting scientific studies on the quantity, trends, and future impact of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide. Instead of preparing for these future challenges, the company instead chose to bury this deep scientific understanding and engage in more than 30 years of deceiving the public about the dangers of global warming.

When we think about corporate interests blocking meaningful climate action, we often focus on a few key actors—the companies whose business models are most threatened by a low-carbon future, that sow doubt about climate science, and that engage in deceptive political tactics. But according to a new analysis, these bad actors aren’t the only ones contributing to obstruction of climate action.

Working with UCS, InfluenceMap assessed the influence of the world's largest companies on climate change policy. They found that many companies and trade groups are still obstructing progress on addressing climate change. Photo: InfluenceMap.org

Working with UCS, InfluenceMap assessed the influence of the world’s largest companies on climate change policy. They found that many companies and trade groups are still obstructing progress on addressing climate change. Photo: InfluenceMap.org

Mapping corporate influence on climate policy

Working with UCS, the new London-based nonprofit InfluenceMap assessed how the world’s top companies seek to influence climate science and policy. The remarkably systematic methodology allows for comparison between companies and looks globally, analyzing the top 100 companies on the 2014 Forbes Global 2000 list.

What do we find from this assessment? The biggest take away for me was this: A staggering 95 percent of companies are affiliated with trade groups that have exhibited obstructionist behavior; that is, the vast majority of major companies contribute in part to blocking policies on climate action, despite their often public support for climate action. And there are many companies who do make statements and take actions in support of addressing climate change. The InfluenceMap analysis also found that 45 percent of companies assessed exhibited inconsistent behavior on climate change, supporting climate action in some venues and obstructing it in others.

Tricks of the trade

We’ve heard this story before. The UCS report Tricks of the Trade analyzed companies’ reporting of their trade group board membership and alignment with the groups’ climate positions. The analysis found that the many companies fail to acknowledge their board seat on major trade associations, and those that do, tend to report that they do not agree with the group’s climate position. In a notable example, only three of the 117 board members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported agreeing with the business group’s climate position on a recent survey. Which of course begs the question, if few companies are willing to stand behind them, who is the Chamber actually representing when it aggressively works to block policies that would address climate change?

Companies can use this secrecy to their advantage. Without a legal mandate to disclose donors, the Chamber and other business and trade associations can influence public policy decisions without any accountability for the people or companies footing the bill. We know these activities are happening, and we know they undercut our democracy, but to see this effect quantified on a global scale in the InfluenceMap analysis is remarkable… and concerning.

The road to Paris

As we get closer to the UN Climate Negotiations in Paris, we need to be mindful of the role of such business and trade associations. These groups can wield their tremendous resources to try and influence the course of the negotiations.  They can do this at the conference itself, but it’s likely much of the work they do to block progress on a global climate agreement is done at home. These groups can influence leaders in their home countries to limit the effectiveness of negotiations later.

We know that these groups have influence at this level. The Executive Director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres has said, “Business leaders can demonstrate and communicate the need for long-term energy plans, increased efficiency, and climate-friendly investment… This in turn, gives governments the support they need to act on the international stage.” (By the way, UCS is hosting a webinar with Ms. Figueres at 10:30 am EST this morning, September 16. You can register to attend here).  

In other words, to make progress in international climate negotiations, it is important to get the business community on board. Ultimately, we need accountability for the companies behind business groups that are obstructing global efforts to address climate change. UCS and InfluenceMap are seeking to shed some light on that obstruction. Here’s hoping the road to Paris is well-lit.